In the famous darkroom sequence in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), progressive enlargements of a series of photographs of a couple walking in a park expose, of all things, a gun concealed from view. Yet, curiously, in the course of the film, the photographic and cinematic apparatus that discloses data pointing to a crime exacerbates the spectator’s apprehension of the unknowability of things. In Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981), in part a remake of Antonioni’s film, sound (above all, audiotape) plays a role analogous to that of photography in Blow-Up. A sound engineer working for a horror and exploitation film production company deduces an act of murder and political sabotage from audio captured during a field trip to a nature reserve. Using playback, he isolates the sound of a gunshot triggering a (fictional) tyre ‘blow out’, killing a presidential contender. (De Palma has alluded to his fascination with the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the investigations and data overload following his death, as a concern—or an obsession—during the making of Blow Out.) A sound recording of a woman’s murder at the end of the film—a consequence of the protagonist’s investigations—cruelly satisfies his longstanding quest for ‘the perfect scream’ to serve as audio stock for future film productions.
This paper highlights several ways in which Blow-Up and Blow Out disrupt the presumed natural liaison of audio and image, a liaison pivotal to the experience of cinema since the advent of the talkie. It also explores how both films undermine the appearance of reality that cinema typically seeks to sustain. Thus the famous mimed tennis sequence in Blow-Up truly blows up the conventional relationship between synched sound and image and the naturalism it implies. Contra some readings of this film, I argue that Blow Out, after Blow-Up, in no way resurrects a realist conception of the relationship between sound and image. In fact Blow Out’s ‘perfect scream’ deepens the questions of cinematic truth and illusion posed in Antonioni’s film. A crucial aspect of the film, which favors night scenes, is its insistent cutting against the grain of the priority accorded to visibility and visuality that is still the rule in cinema today. Here De Palma prompts film, almost against itself, to learn a new language of noise, sound, and silence. In these ways, I suggest, the errant disposition of sound, image and data in both films recalls Walter Benjamin’s account of the aura of certain images and artworks, implying an elusiveness or mystery encircling every investigation, every discovery. The viewer of Blow-Up and Blow Out becomes ever more aware of a certain secrecy that haunts cinema: the ‘unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may appear’ (Benjamin).